Monday, May 04, 2015

Charlie Chaplin: The Cautionary Tale of a Missional Genius

My boss sometimes takes me to bookstores. It's not a habit of mine, oddly enough, even though I'm a book editor and a lifelong reader. It's the sort of thing I'm supposed to equate with nerd heaven, and I do enjoy it, but it's not something I regularly indulge in.

But when my boss takes me to a bookstore, I like to pick something up, especially when the bookstore is an independent. Most recently we went to the Tattered Cover in Denver, a sprawling store in the classic sense. Picture tall shelves with rolling ladders. Picture effusive recommendations from staff. Don't picture music or teapots or "Readers do it spine-out" bumper stickers; true believers don't need such ornamentations. Tattered Cover is a booklover's bookstore.

I wandered the shelves, making mental notes, but the book I bought was in the last place I looked: Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life is a relatively new biography of the most celebrated actor of the silent film era, the first worldwide celebrity, the icon of a generation. I've watched many (though by no means most) of his films and remember Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal from the 1990s, but I'd not dug into his story. Now seemed as good a time as any.

Watch early talkie movies and you'll quickly see how married to the stage the medium was. The actors deliver their lines to the back row of the theater, not to the overhead boom, and their reactions are exaggerated in ways that film doesn't require. It was in the silent era, the age celebrated in the recent film The Artist, that the particular strengths of film as a new medium were explored and tested. One director cut every fourth film cell to his action scenes to give a heightened sense of frenzy; chases and other intricate scenes were carefully choreographed so that the impossible seemed both unavoidable and entirely natural. Early films were short - around eleven minutes on average - but they packed a lot of punch.

Chaplin came up in the theater scene and honed his craft mainly by observation. His capacity for acting drunk became legendary; his lampoons of class divisions were spot-on. But the thing that struck me, the thing that took his work from caricature and spoof to high art and cultural relevance, was rooted in observation. In the first days of his foray into film, after success in vaudeville in Britain and the States,

He wandered for some days among the actors and sets without actually being assigned a role. Then the moment came. ... He was not yet the Little Tramp; he was reprising the role of stage villain complete with cravat, top hat, monocle and costume. He had become a "dude" or seedy "toff." In this first film he is insidious, wheedling and oddly threatening. When he kisses a girl's hand, he then goes all the way up the arm. That is an early Chaplin touch. He was rpobably the first to do it on the screen. He already has a full range of facial mannerisms, twitching and smiling and scowling. He also tries out a distinctive walk, the ancestor of a more famous one. ... Moving Picture World said that "the clever player who takes the part of a sharper ... is a comedian of the first water."
Observation is the first virtue of comedy and really any meaningful engagement of society. I once heard theologian Soong-Chan Rah tell an audience of missionaries, "If you seek to change a city without first becoming a student of that city, you're not a missionary, you're a colonialist." Acting without first observing is destructive and is ultimately exposed as artifice, as imposition - at its worst, as violence. But critical observation that informs action is almost inherently transformative. The student of a culture, whether that culture is film or fashion or faith or something entirely different, discovers what that culture values, what it fears, what it longs for, what it assumes to be true. Even the culture under consideration is not as aware of these things as its student. We need the student, ironically, to teach us who we are and what we need.

TWEET THIS: We need the student, ironically, to teach us who we are and what we need.

With the release of Kid Auto Races at Venice, his second or third film (the sequence is unclear, but shot within five days of his first film), Chaplin had discovered the character his audience wanted: a Little Tramp, clearly conscious of high society but far removed from its benefits, never welcomed into the in crowd but never defeated by its rejection. He is the outsider looking in, lifting up society's quirks for society to laugh at, making a hero of an outcast.It is this character, who will evolve over the course of many films, who becomes known the world over and who will define the new art form of film.

He is already dressed in a distinctive fashion, with clothes that are too small for him. ... He "hogs" the scene, serenely self-confident of his own image and aggressive to those who hinder his presentation of himself. He is bristling with the desire to perform. He gets in the way of the camera filming the races, and resists every attempt of the director to exclude him. He wants to commune with that camera but, more significantly, with the vast and unknown audience that is assembled behind the lens. He sets up a direct relationship with those who are watching him, both mocking and conspiratorial. ... He is absurdly solipsistic, as if to say that only he matters. Only he is worth watching. Chaplin would maintain these sentiments for the rest of his film career.
Film is barely a thing, and already Chaplin has knocked down the fourth wall separating the actor from the audience. This is, in fact, what they want - in an impersonal, detached medium Chaplin has supplied personal connection and attachment. The audience identifies with him; they cheer him on even as he violates social protocol right and left. Armed with that trust, Chaplin will go on to expand and ennoble the craft of filmmaking; no longer confined to slapstick, the laughable Little Tramp becomes our guide into a world in which the poor cannot escape poverty because the system is hard-wired against them.

Chaplin had learned early on, in his stage career in London, the proximity of laughter to lament. As actress Marie Lloyd told him, "I believe that's what real comedy is, you know, it's almost like crying." And yet this lament that Chaplin led his audience to was never the final word: The young man who overcame adversity to become the most recognizable person in the world would end his films with a kick of the heels and shuffling strut off to his next adventure. In the world Chaplin observed and acted upon, there was always hope and never defeat.

This was Chaplin's genius, and it is a good model for those of us who follow Christ to emulate. We study our society, we learn what is laughable and lamentable about it, and we bring it to the foreground so that it is no longer overlooked. We help those around us to see what must be seen, and we offer hope that what we see will not defeat us.

TWEET THIS: We help those around us to see what must be seen, and we offer hope that what we see will not defeat us.

If that were all there was of Chaplin's story, that'd be a great thing. But Chaplin has sixty-some years to go, and while much of his art is brilliant, much of his life is tragic. The rewards he earned for his careful observation and sympathetic portrayal went to his head. There's little worse than a student who thinks they have nothing left to learn. Chaplin was officious and tyrannical as a director, going so far as to ignore obvious gaffes in his films because he was convinced the audience would never notice them, being as focused as they were on his performance. He was notorious for his treatment of women, most of whom began as muses and ended as used-up lovers. He liked young girls for their innocence, but he repeatedly stole innocence from them. He visited the tenements of his childhood but recoiled at the notion that he shared anything in common with their occupants. And over time this hubris affected his art as well, so that his characters became less a portrayal of Everyman and more a patronizing send up of everyone but himself.

TWEET THIS: There's little worse than a student who thinks they have nothing left to learn.

Chaplin's tragic story has lessons for us as well: our successes in life don't make us better than our neighbors, and the true student of society never graduates. We've never fully uncovered the mystery of our neighbors, and whatever story we might tell on their behalf is never complete. It is always an honor, always a burden, and however we tell such stories, we must always look not just for what's laughable or lamentable in it but for the defiant hope on the other side of it. Without hope, even our most profound portrayals degrade into caricature. Without hope, all comedy degrades into tragedy.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Take Off Your Shoes: The Holy Ground of Airport Security

A woman hasn't seen her sister in eleven years when she learns that her sister is dying. A car accident bogged down her effort to visit, and her sister died before she could get there. She went for a walk on the beach and found a long knotted rope. She started untying the knots, thinking about her sister as she loosened the knots and untangled the rope. Six hours later the rope was neatly collected and she was ready to take her place as the family matriarch.

She hasn't flown in a plane since 1987. She just got married, so all her identifications show her maiden name. Her husband, a merchant marine, is at sea for two weeks. Her flight was, of course, booked at the last second. But you have to go, to return and be restored to your place in the family, as much for your family as for you.

I want to call my sister, to tell her I won't let the years separate us. I want to cull the herd of my life so I can quickly go where I need to be in a hurry. I want to say something more profound and resonant than "She's in a better place" and "She's looking down on you in love" or "I'll be praying for you," as much because that can't really be comforting, even though she's clearly comforted by it, as because I must be a better wordsmith, a more sophisticated thinker, than that.

I've got nothing. I just offer my prayers and nod in agreement. Her sister is in a better place than the place where she contracted lung cancer and lost touch with her sister for more than a decade. She is looking down in love, because love is the thing that survives death.

We're in line together at security, and the TSA agent is wonderfully compassionate, even though she thought we were a couple when clearly I'm younger and could do better, right? And then we are through security and she's going to concourse N and I'm going to concourse C. I say goodbye and she doesn't hear me because she's in her own head. I haven't made a friend; I've just made my way through the security line. And it's not even 7am yet. But the world spins madly on, and the finger of God holds the axis steady, and my shoes are off, because the place where I am standing is holy ground.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Throw Down Your Ace in the Hole: Happy Easter from Loud Time

Such is the way of the world
You can never know

Just where to put all your faith
And how will it grow?


Peter got really nervous and swore, “I never laid eyes on this man you’re talking about.” Just then the rooster crowed a second time. Peter remembered how Jesus had said, “Before a rooster crows twice, you’ll deny me three times.” He collapsed in tears.

Such is the passage of time
Too fast to fold

Suddenly swallowed by signs
Lo and behold


Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. As she wept, she knelt to look into the tomb and saw two angels sitting there, dressed in white, one at the head, the other at the foot of where Jesus’ body had been laid. They said to her, “Woman, why do you weep?”

“They took my Master,” she said, “and I don’t know where they put him.” After she said this, she turned away and saw Jesus standing there. But she didn’t recognize him.

Jesus spoke to her, “Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?”

She, thinking that he was the gardener, said, “Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.”

Jesus said, “Mary.”


Gonna rise up
Burning black holes in dark memories

Gonna rise up
Turning mistakes into gold


Monday, March 23, 2015

A People's Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew 3

The Scriptures are, by and large, set in a context of oppression and marginalization. Sometimes the audience is the oppressed; sometimes it's the oppressors. Sometimes both audiences are, for all intents and purposes, one and the same. We overlook stuff when we forget that those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort.

Hence the ongoing project I'm working on:

A People's Commentary on the New Testament

In this project I attempt to notice in the Scriptures a running theme of "striving" (in the words of people's historian Howard Zinn) "against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make ideals [professed in public] a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that."

I invite you to undertake it as well:

  1. Pick a chapter of the New Testament and interpret it online.
  2. As you write, think about people you know (or see, or imagine) who are not sitting in the halls of power.
  3. Think of the author of your particular scripture text not as someone with an advance on royalties in the bank and a Macbook Pro on their lap but as someone with no place to lay their head.
  4. Use the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find it, and so eventually we can sync the whole thing together.

So far at least one other person has taken me up on this populist crusade. Let me know if you take it on; I'd love to see what you come up with.

And now, without further ado, a people's commentary on Matthew 3.


His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings. John the Baptizer, born into privilege as son of a temple priest, was also a miracle child, having been born to parents who had long before given up on having children. His character here demonstrates the turbulent religious climate at the time of Jesus' ministry, as he rejected the formal religious system of his father and embraced the ascetic lifestyle ("a diet of locusts and wild honey") and fiery message of a renegade prophet: "Prepare for God's arrival! Make the road smooth and straight!" Here he references the prophet Isaiah:

Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
(Isaiah 40:4-5)

While these words allude to a great leveling in society - bad news, generally, for people who had secured power for themselves - its context is a message of comfort: "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem," Isaiah is instructed by God. It is worth remembering at all times that God offers good news to people who struggle and suffer; God's words of confrontation always have a larger context of loving concern.

TWEET THIS: God's words of confrontation always have a larger context of loving concern.

That John drew diverse crowds is noteworthy, both as a demonstration of the religious upheaval taking place, and as a context for Jesus' first public display of his divine mission.

When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded. As is often the case, sincere acts of repentance often degrade into pious performance; much as politicians who make a show of going to church, or scandalized televangelists who make a tear-filled public confession of scandalous behavior and immediately return to fundraising, such appropriations of earnest acts of commitment simultaneously buttress the public profile of people in power while also subverting the enduring value of more authentic demonstrations. John's response is telling: "Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life." As Jesus himself will affirm, John declares that public spectacles and public behavior alike are suspect; our character and commitment are revealed in small, even secret ways, far removed from any derived benefit.

“The main character in this drama — compared to him I’m a mere stagehand — will ignite the kingdom life within you." As powerful and momentous as John's ministry was, it was effectively remedial; the more proactive, constructive, directive ministry was still to come, through Jesus. "He’s going to clean house — make a clean sweep of your lives." If John represents a renaissance of the prophetic tradition, with strong confrontational language leading to a renewed commitment to justice and social parity, then Jesus (at least according to John) represents revolution, a total overhaul of the social order.

Note that John sees himself, and consequently his ministry, as subordinate to Jesus. He is "a mere stagehand" for the main act to come. And when Jesus ultimately presents himself for baptism, John objects: “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”

“God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” Why would Jesus, self-conscious of his unique mission, accept a baptism of repentance by John, who himself admits his inferiority? A recurring theme in Jesus' teaching (and, importantly, his visions of the end) is the great leveling of Isaiah 40, the flattening of social hierarchies. Guests at the wedding banquet that represents the end of the age range from the powerful to the penniless; moreover, men and women of ill repute and little to no means made regular appearances alongside Jesus at meals throughout the Gospels. It isn't the pecking order in this baptism that is important to Jesus; it's "God's work [of] putting things right" that matters. In this respect, both John the Baptizer and Jesus the Messiah are playing roles in an epic story; their vocation is fulfilled not by achieving status but by playing their part well.

“This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Jesus may be playing a part in a story, but he is the central character in it. He will have his credentials repeatedly challenged by powerful people in scenes to come, but here his credentials are clear: God himself participates in Jesus' baptism, which becomes effectively an ordination, a king's anointing:

"You are my son;
today I have become your father.
Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession. ...
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction.
(Psalm 2:7-10)

TWEET THIS: Jesus' mission is good news for the people, but bad news for those who have achieved power and status.

This first public declaration of Jesus' mission is good news for the people, but once again it is bad news for those who have achieved power and status, often on the backs of people they were sworn to serve and protect. Jesus' anointing is a warning to "you rulers of the earth": they, like everyone else, are subject to the ultimate Sovereign God of creation, and their rejection of Jesus - and the social order he represents - will be counted as treason, and dealt with accordingly.